“Let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September the 11th; malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists, themselves, away from the guilty.”
George Bush addressing the United Nations General Assembly on November 10th 2001.
It has become a media cliche that everyone remembers what they were doing the day Kennedy was assassinated, but it is a cliche that I haven’t heard in years (just about seven years to be more accurate). Today we live with the aftermath of a different event that binds the collective psyche – an event that was both more terrible and more shocking. So shocking indeed that, rather like death itself, it is still only rarely mentioned in polite company.
I was teaching when I first heard news of what was happening on the morning of September 11th 2001. I was trying to explain the importance of error analysis in science to my latest class of first year students, when one of them cut in. Sorry, he said, can I just tell you something. And then he began explaining how both of the twin towers had been struck by aircraft and that the first had already collapsed. You might easily imagine that I had no idea at all what to say. Certainly, I didn’t reprimand him for listening to his radio when he was supposed to be learning about experimental uncertainty. I didn’t even ask him to turn the radio off. Instead I simply asked him whether what he was telling me was true (since it sounded like pure fiction) and then after a few seconds of bewildered silence, I turned back to the board and continued with the lesson. But then I doubt there is anything you could meaningfully say at such a moment.
Driving home, I put the radio on. With the rolling accounts and reports, my dim imaginings began to reify into a more solid horror. Arriving back I wondered whether or not I should turn the TV on to watch such carnage. It was obviously so dreadful and I wondered what could justify wanting to see it at all. Could I really have become so ghoulish? I watched of course, and then who didn’t. We all had to watch the horror, if only to make it believable.
Next day, still trying to make sense of the new reality, I went out for a walk by the river, and I remember thinking how odd it was that nothing had changed. That the river flowed by just as reliably as ever, that the birds sang no less surely, and that what had so irrevocably shaken the world had somehow left no obvious indelible mark away from its own margin. I realise, of course, that these are more commonly the kinds of thoughts that accompany a bereavement. But this wasn’t mourning in any ordinary sense, since you cannot feel bereft of those you never knew – the vicarious grief displayed at Diana’s funeral a few years earlier having been nothing but grim emotional tourism. No, the loss that so many of us felt after September 11th was real and different in kind from the morbidity in the aftermath Diana’s demise. It involved something like the loss of innocence.
Later, in the pub I got talking with some friends. Aside from the horror there were still many questions. Who did it and why? And what were the likely repercussions? Already the media talk was focussing on the effects to international finance, but James, my economist friend, told us that he didn’t think the markets would be seriously affected. (A matter on which he was proved largely correct as it mapped out.) As for who did it, well it just wasn’t clear. Perhaps it was another attack like the Oklahoma bombing, carried out by an internal militia; after all, prior to September 11th, Oklahoma had been the most serious terrorist attack on American soil. Certainly, there was no tangible evidence of involvement by a militant Islamic group, or obvious links to Osama Bin Laden. Such proof of an Al Qaeda mission only came to light later, on the day after the attacks, after the FBI had discovered the car, hired by Mohammed Atta, and subsequently abandoned at Boston airport. A flight manual in Arabic and a copy of the Koran had been left behind. And meanwhile, George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and others in the administration were maintaining that the intelligence services had received no forewarning of any sort of imminent attack. No clues whatsoever that any group had plans to use domestic airliners as missiles. Well, actually it turns out that this wasn’t quite true either.1
But hold on, already something is more profoundly wrong here. Because within hours of the attacks on the day itself, the news reports on American networks were already talking about “all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda attack” (in spite of its obviously unprecedented method and magnitude). Pure conjecture and guesswork, then. Yet given the surprise of the attacks, how on earth could the networks have seemingly been more clued-up than the White House. Well, it turns out that we’ve missed a bit again…
By an extraordinary fluke, we later learned that Mohammed Atta’s luggage had failed to meet its connecting flight. And that, by virtue of this good fortune, the FBI were, within only a few hours, able to establish a list of details including names, dates of birth, known residences, visa status, for all of the hijackers. This, at least, is the official story (as it now stands – as opposed to the one we were originally told), and so it follows that the networks may indeed have known more than they were letting on. Or does it go too far to speculate that they may have received some form of special briefing?
But then another odd thing occurred. On September 16th, a video was broadcast on Al Jazeera in which Osama Bin Laden denied all responsibility:
“I stress that I have not carried out this act, which appears to have been carried out by individuals with their own motivation.”
To many, including myself, it seemed strange that the orchestrator of such a devastating attack had refused to take credit for his success. Oh, don’t worry about that, we were told, this is not the way the Islamists do business. They much prefer to lurk in the shadows. In any case, Mohammed Atta’s suitcase would provide reason enough to send the first waves of troops into Afghanistan, and the media’s attention (which gets shorter by the year) soon switched to covering the vastly more exciting spectacle of war. As for Bin Laden, well apparently, they’d be “smoking him out” and bringing him home “dead or alive.” But like many things surrounding the September 11th attacks, even the urgent manhunt for Bin Laden has been largely forgotten. Bin Laden will surely never be found and judging by later reports no one, and least of all George Bush, is terribly bothered. [And then, completely out of the blue, he was found! But that’s a different story.]
In any case, and as luck would have it again, another video of Bin Laden was quickly unearthed. Whilst carrying out their mission, U.S. forces had stumbled on the tape, recovering it from the ruins of house in Jalalabad. The tape, broadcast on various news networks from December 13, 2001, shows Bin Laden apparently laughing and joking with Khaled al-Harbi2, sharing delight in their reminiscence of the atrocity, and of course, freely admitting to their own responsibility. But then it’s just a videotape – a tape that many experts believe to be a fraud.3
At the time it never occurred to me that this official version of events might be significantly untrue. Certainly I was surprised by how quickly the FBI had recovered their evidence, and there were a few other reasons to doubt the whole truth of the official version. Taking flight manuals on a hijacking caused me to think only of the hapless German pilot in the vintage British comedy Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, desperately trying to avoid descent into the sea whilst the pages of his own manual are blown to the wind. There was also the more mind-boggling question of why one of the alleged hijackers had packed his last will and testament. I mean just what sort of goon would bring their will when embarking on a suicide mission? As for the miraculous survival of a passport from one of the hijackers that escaped the fires and the subsequent collapse of the World Trade Centre, to float down fully intact a few blocks away, well…4 Here was George Monbiot’s considered opinion at the time:
“Then there was the passport. The security services claim that a passport belonging to one of the hijackers was extracted from the rubble of the World Trade Center. This definitive identification might help them to track the rest of the network. We are being asked to believe that a paper document from the cockpit of the first plane – the epicentre of an inferno which vapourised steel – survived the fireball and fell to the ground almost intact. When presented with material like this, I can’t help suspecting that intelligence agents have assembled the theory first, then sought the facts required to fit it.”5
But, but, surely that would mean the evidence was planted?
Yet, in spite of such ludicrous coincidences and inconsistencies, and though undoubtedly it had flashed through my mind that somehow the people in charge – people I generally wouldn’t trust to tell me the correct time – might have contrived just to “let it happen”, well even this seemed a wrongful thought. Not wrong, but indecent. As if I were treading on graves.
Over a year passed. Back home in America the tough guys were now shifting the blame for September 11th onto Saddam Hussein6. This was crazy, of course – surely everyone knew it wasn’t true. So in Britain we got the other story. The one that said Iraq was swarming with so-called WMDs – when the truth, as we all knew, was that most of the world’s “weapons of mass destruction” are still mostly packed into silos in America. In any case the media were already happily chasing off in the new direction, as the bunker-busting bombs in the Tora Bora mountains became yesterday’s news, and the sound of sabre rattling toward Baghdad grew to a second crescendo.
Meantime, an official inquiry into the events of September 11th had finally been opened in late November (441 days after the dust first began to settle on Ground Zero), though it would take a further year and a half before, in summer 2004, the Kean-Hamilton Commission issued their final report. News of testimony from that inquiry barely dribbled back to Britain, lost for the most part amidst the rising tides of bellicose hysteria about Saddam’s WMDs.
By 2004, I’d more or less stopped thinking about September 11th. If Al Qaeda hadn’t carried out the attacks then surely it must have been another terrorist group, and probably one with similar Islamic origins and shared anti-American intentions. The official story remained the only credible account – even when parts of that account were altogether implausible. For instance, what really did happen to Flight 93, or the fourth plane? Had it really been brought down in a courageous attempt by the passengers to overthrow the hijackers? There certainly wasn’t much wreckage on the ground near Shanksville. And how was it that yet another passport had survived unscathed, along with an immaculate bandana, when the plane itself was almost nowhere to be found? Like many, I imagined that it had most likely been shot down, which was not merely understandable, but given such circumstances, might have been obligatory. It was conceivable that the more heroic Hollywood version had simply been overwritten. Lies, perhaps, given the circumstances did it really matter… hadn’t America suffered enough already?
Then, out of the blue, my brother-in-law loaned me a copy of a book entitled “9/11: The New Pearl Harbour”. You might be interested in this, he told me, though admitting that he hadn’t yet read it himself. Suddenly my doubts were about to grow.
1“I don’t think anyone could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile – a hijacked airplane as a missile.” Condoleezza Rice (C-Span). “Nobody in our government at least, and I don’t think the prior government could envisage flying airplanes into buildings.” George W. Bush (C-Span). But this again turns out to be untrue. “In 1998, U.S. intelligence had information that a group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosives-laden airplane into the World Trade Center, according to a joint inquiry of the House and Senate intelligence committees.” reported by CNN on Thursday, September 19, 2002. You may also recall that in December 1994 an Air France flight was hijacked in Algiers by members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), who had plans to crash it into the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, French Special Forces successfully stormed the plane on the ground. It turns out that far from being unimaginable, various agencies had been preparing for actions of precisely this kind. Here is a report entitled “NORAD had drills of jets as weapons” by Steven Komarow and Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY, from 18th April 2004: “In the two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command conducted exercises simulating what the White House says was unimaginable at the time: hijacked airliners used as weapons to crash into targets and cause mass casualties. One of the imagined targets was the World Trade Center.” Of course we have also since learnt that, in the words of George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, “The system was blinking red”. His words in fact became the title of Chapter 8 of the Kean/Commission Report.
2“A longtime associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden surrendered to Saudi Arabian officials Tuesday, a Saudi Interior Ministry official said. But it is unclear what role, if any, Khaled al-Harbi may have had in any terror attacks because no public charges have been filed against him. And though a Saudi security official called al-Harbi “a big fish,” a U.S. intelligence official told CNN he was ‘not particularly significant.'” from CNN, Wednesday, posted July 14, 2004
3A great many video and audiotapes have surfaced and been reported as Osama Bin Laden declaring his intentions. Questions hang over the authenticity of many. The sound and picture quality of the tape in question (December 13th 2001) are dreadfully poor. Here an Osama who looks different in many ways from the genuine Osama (particular attention should be paid to the nose, here much thicker and shorter than in his younger days), is apparently claiming foreknowledge, if not actual responsibility, for the September 11th attacks, and then chortling over their success. The authenticity of this tape has been so widely questioned that outside the mainstream media is widely referred to as the “fatty bin laden” video. The next tape to be verified as authentic by the CIA was on audiotape only. It was delivered to Al Jazeera in Autumn 2002 but then quickly discredited by experts. Here’s an article from taken BBC News Friday, 29 November, 2002: entitled ‘Bin Laden tape ‘not genuine”: “Researchers in Switzerland have questioned the authenticity of the recent audio recording attributed to Osama Bin Laden. A team from the Lausanne-based Dalle Molle Institute for Perceptual Artificial Intelligence, Idiap, said it was 95% certain the tape does not feature the voice of the al-Qaeda leader.” The BBC’s Ian McWilliam also reported that “Their computer found differences compared to older Bin Laden tapes”
4 Here is a rather skeptical report from Anne Karpf of The Guardian, Tuesday March 19, 2002: ‘Uncle Sam’s lucky finds’: “In less than a week came another find, two blocks away from the twin towers, in the shape of Atta’s passport. We had all seen the blizzard of paper rain down from the towers, but the idea that Atta’s passport had escaped from that inferno unsinged would have tested the credulity of the staunchest supporter of the FBI’s crackdown on terrorism.” In point of fact the passport that had supposedly survived so miraculously – in contrast to all four black-box recorders from flights AA11 and UA175 that were apparently all destroyed – belonged to Satam Al Suqami and NOT to alleged ring-leader Mohammed Atta as is commonly misreported
5Extract from “Collateral repair: A massive aid programme for Afghanistan will help bring down the Taliban” by George Monbiot, published in The Guardian on Tuesday September 25th, 2001.
6“You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the War on Terror.” George W. Bush on September 25th 2002. “Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own. Before September 11th many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained.” from George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address on January 28th 2003.